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Presumed avian malaria leaves six Columbian Park Zoo penguins dead, three in critical condition

Courtesy of Lafayette Parks & Recreation

Six penguins at Columbian Park Zoo in Lafayette have died of what staff believe is avian malaria.

The first penguin, Flash, died at the end of October. Over the next month, five more penguins -- Zip, Zing, Fozzie, Raspberry, and Chartreuse -- also passed away.

The park's remaining three penguins are currently in critical condition. Avian malaria can have a mortality rate of up to 80%, and staff say it is a possibility they could lose more birds.

Caitlin Laffery, assistant director at Columbian Park Zoo, said the park had already been taking preventative measures against mosquito bites and infection. Across the country, zoos with penguins have to take precautions to protect against avian malaria - which is one of the top risks for penguins kept outdoors.

“It’s common knowledge that avian malaria is something that penguins in human care are susceptible to. All zoos that exhibit penguins are aware of this being a possibility and have measures in place, just like we did, to prevent this exposure to avian malaria,” she said. “Unfortunately our measures did not work 100%.”

The penguins arrived at the zoo in July of this year. Laffery said the first penguin didn’t begin exhibiting symptoms until the end of October, but was likely infected weeks earlier.

“This is something a lot of zoos don’t have to deal with and we are devastated that we have to make this announcement,” she said.

According to Laffery, staff haven’t been able to absolutely confirm that the birds were infected with avian malaria but strongly suspect the parasitic illness is to blame.

“All of the tests that we’ve run point towards malaria,” she said. “The gold standard for being able to 100% identify malaria would be on a blood smear. Through ourselves in-house and other veterinarians, we have been unable to identify a malarial organism.”

Laffery said the zoo will look into additional protective measures for the exhibit in the future, but is currently focused on the care of the remaining penguins.